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  • Alison Davis

Reading behaviors versus reading skills - What is the difference for young learners?

Updated: May 28, 2020


Many educators believe that reading skills and reading behaviors are the same, so they tend to teach both as one concept. However, a child’s reading behavior and how they develop their reading skills are two very different perspectives when teaching young learners to read in English.

Reading is an interactive process between the reader and the text, resulting in comprehension as the act of making meaning. The text is made up of letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs that create meaning alongside picture/photo contextual clues. The reader uses knowledge, skills, as well as behaviors to think about the meaning of the text.


Reading behaviors are the thinking processes and actions learners use to make meaning from what they read in text. It is an active thinking process about the ideas in the text so that learners understand and think deeply about what they read. Teachers should model these reading behaviors as “think-alouds” whenever they read.

Reading behaviors focus on how learners think about, figure out and remember the information from what they read. These are deliberate actions where the educator guides the young learner to learn how to decode text, understand word meanings, infer context and construct meaning across an entire text. Educators should model specific reading behaviors so that learners actively think about the text they are reading and the strategies they use in order to understand it – rather than to just decode and answer questions.


Teachers should make the most of learners’ natural curiosity and wonder about their world as they interact and make meaning from what they read in the text. Young learners are often full of awe of the things around them and become more engaged in reading if their curiosity is encouraged. Teachers should model reading behaviors, such as nurturing “I wonder” ideas from the text.

Reading skills are the bottom-up strategies young learners need to decode, answer questions and complete tasks. These skills are used automatically to be able to read a text and are often used routinely and practiced through multiple activities. They are typically used for letter recognition, phonemic awareness, phonics activities, word recognition, grammar structures and to answer comprehension questions. These techniques support the learner to be fluent and proficient with automatic recognition of letters, words and conventions of the English language - and are often used after reading.


Teachers of young learners in an ESL setting should use authentic texts, to model to students’, different behaviors for thinking deeply, critically and inferentially about the texts they read. Teachers should provide opportunity every day for higher order thinking about what has been read and help students learn to satisfy curiosity through exploration and interaction with the text. This can be done throughout the reading by stopping, thinking, modelled "think- alouds” and “I wonder”, predicting, drawing, summarising and questioning.

Educators modeling reading behaviors and the interaction between the reader and the text daily, will equip young learners with the knowledge and skills they need to become successful readers.

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